Perhaps the motto of Northwestern A volleyball should be “expect the unexpected.”
Laurel, the East’s No. 2 seed entering last year’s state tournament, defeated Northwest No. 1 seed Frenchtown to claim the crown. However, the Broncs’ presence in the title game could have been seen as a surprise.
Frenchtown finished fourth in the Northwestern A regular season standings with a 2-6 league mark before starting its improbable ride to the State A title match.
The Broncs won the Northwestern A divisional tournament, then beat Butte Central, Lewistown and Laurel in their first three matches at state.
The Locomotives downed Billings Central to earn a rematch with Frenchtown, this time for the championship. Laurel went on to beat the Broncs twice to earn the title.
Despite coming up short in 2012, second year Frenchtown head coach Gypsy Ray sees 2013 as promising.
“We set some pretty high goals for my second year,” Ray said. “Last year was quite a whirlwind – the way our record was in season before going through the tournament.
“We want to build on last year, and do better in conference games during the season. And we definitely want to make it back to state.”
While the Broncs struggled in Northwestern A play, they posted a solid 10-5 mark outside of the conference to finish 12-11 overall.
The entire starting cast from last year’s state runners-up will return this season, poised to make another deep run.
Seniors Josie Anderson, Jadan Ross and Vanessa Stavis are joined by juniors Haley Cyr, Lacey Hochhalter and Morgan Ray as returning starters.
Anderson, Stavish and Ray were named to the all-conference team in 2012.
“I definitely think we have shot at the title,” Gypsy Ray said. “Tournaments are interesting. You never know who is going to show up and play. Last year, the Nos. 4 and 5 teams (from the Northwestern A) went to state. My team has the ability to do it. We learned that last year.”
Whitefish finished atop the Northwestern A last season, going a perfect 8-0 in league play and 11-4 overall.
Seniors Marlow Schulz and Bekah Weaver will lead the Bulldogs in 2013 after falling short of last year’s state tournament.
“This year’s team is smart and adaptable,” third-year Whitefish head coach Sarah Scott said. “They fight for every point.”
Finishing second in Northwestern A standings while also falling short of state was Polson (5-3, 9-7). It was the first time in five years the Pirates had missed the tournament, but Ray sees Polson as stiff competition regardless.
“I always have to say Polson,” said Ray when asked to evaluate the competition in the Northwestern A. “They seem to be competitive in every sport.”
Haley Belgarde leads a Columbia Falls team that advanced to the state tournament despite finishing the regular season fifth in the conference at 2-6, 7-13.
Libby (3-5, 4-10) will look to the guidance of juniors Mahalah Wedel and Hannah England.
Loggers coach Cindy Ostrem-Johnston said her team’s strengths include a strong backrow defense, team chemistry, aggressive servers and the positive attitudes of her players.
In the Southwestern A, things were much more predictable.
Corvallis – the No. 1 seed out of the conference at state – finished first in the Southwestern A during the regular season at 7-3, 13-7. The Blue Devils look poised to defend their conference title with the return of all-state setter Laura Berner.
Berner is joined by fellow seniors Alex Price, Joanna Avery and Katie Patterson. Price and Avery were both second team all-conference while Patterson earned honorable mention in 2012.
Additionally, Junior Kelsey Irwin was named first team all-conference.
“We only lost two seniors from last year,” fifth-year Corvallis head coach Kasey Arceniega said. “They are expecing a lot out of themselves this season, but they don’t want to get ahead of themselves. They want to improve with each match, each practice.
“I think this team has the ability to do great things.”
The Blue Devils were ousted in the state tournament by losing games to Laurel and Billings Central.
All-state outside hitter Penny Gwynn will lead a Hamilton squad that finished 3-7, 5-14 in 2012.
“Penny Gwynn is a tough server,” eighth-year Broncs head coach DeEtte Monson said. “She’s solid on both offense and defense.”
Monson said her team will rely on its defense and well balanced attack this year.
Under first-year head coach Erin O’Reilly, Stevensville (4-6, 6-12) looks to be much improved.
Outside hitter Kyla Paulson will lead the Yellowjackets in 2013.
“They have a really strong front row,” said Arceniega of Stevensville.
Also advancing to state was Butte Central, (7-3, 11-8). This year, the Maroons are led by three seniors in Cassidy McGree, Erin Antonioli and Sadie Harrington.
Monson said Butte Central features a “quick tempo offense and state experience from last season.”
Rounding out the three-way tie atop the Southwestern A regular season standings in 2012 was Anaconda (7-3, 10-6).
The Copperheads lost valuable experience from last year’s squad, but “they have a lot of depth,” said Arceniega.
Perhaps the most improved team in the Southwestern A in 2013 will be Dillon (2-8, 6-13).
Four seniors – Courtney Linder, Josee Pendleton, Taryn Judge and Allie Morstein – will look to help the Beavers improve upon 2012’s mark.
Pendleton and Judge were both all-conference players last season.
“We gained valuable experience last year, as well as the year before” first-year head coach Angela Racicot said. “We’re focusing on taking advantage of opportunities and being aggressive in every phase of the game.
“I feel the Southwest A should be very strong this year and every conference match will be competitive.”